25 blacklisted books that seemingly predicted the future
25 blacklisted books that seemingly predicted the future
When it comes to book bans, time often reveals those siding with censorship are on the wrong side of history. Yet, from July 2021 to June 2022, 1,648 unique titles were banned in the United States, according to PEN America's Index of School Book Bans. While that number may seem small compared to the millions of titles released every year, the list's existence alone seems antithetical to the First Amendment and democracy itself.
"I think banning books is a very, very dangerous thing. It takes away an important freedom. Any time there is an attempt to ban a book, you should fight it as hard as you can," author Lois Lowry said in response to challenges to her own book, "The Giver." "It's okay for a parent to say, 'I don't want my child to read this book.' But it is not okay for anyone to try to make that decision for other people."
Surging attempts to ban books over the years have alarmed educators, librarians, and those wanting readers to have access to a wide range of ideas. While some bans begin with the idea of protecting young minds, it deprives readers everywhere.
Stacker compiled a list of 25 blacklisted books—some award-winning, many critically acclaimed—that seemingly predicted the future, using historical documents and articles. From those discussing sexual abuse, gender, sexuality, and racism, among other stirring topics, every book on this list has found its way to a banned-book list.
These books were not only formerly banned (albeit some still are) but also had an unsettling way of predicting the future. From their allegories to outright criticisms, these books, in retrospect, were light-years ahead of their time, their authors eerily prescient.
Have any of the books you've read been banned? Read on to find out.
'1984' by George Orwell
When it comes to novels that feel closer to fact than fiction, George Orwell's book "1984," released in 1949, is often top of mind.
The story centers Winston Smith, a man who continually tries to express his individuality and ability to reason. However, he lives in a totalitarian state called Oceania, which controls every thought and action of its citizens' lives. In Oceania, surveillance technology keeps tabs on everyone, with Big Brother always watching—a far-fetched idea in the mid-century that doesn't seem so impossible now in an era where government-backed facial recognition and website data collection are the norm.
The book published to critical acclaim, but that didn't stop it from becoming challenged or banned. In communist Russia, "1984" was banned and burned for its anti-communist views until it was lifted in 1988. Ironically, it was challenged in Jackson City, Florida, for being pro-communist. As of 2022, Belarus placed a ban on the book, and bookstore owners carrying the title were detained.
'The Giver' by Lois Lowry
Lois Lowry's 1993 young adult novel is a dystopian look into the life of Jonas, a young man living in a society that seems too perfect, too sterile. It's because everyone has taken drugs that suppress their memories and emotions. The community has chosen a Receiver to bear that burden instead, but when Jonas starts to train under this elder, he begins to appreciate what society has lost in exchange.
Lowry's novel has won multiple accolades, including the John Newbery Medal and the William Allen White Award. Still, it has been banned and challenged for touching on issues deemed too dark, such as sex, suicide, starvation, and euthanasia.
The book plays heavily into what can happen when we offload our responsibility to face difficult things and erase our differing thoughts and opinions. These themes have become far more prevalent in the last 20 years with the rise of social media and the concept of online clout, or "influence," and increasing attempts to ban things such as gender-affirming care—especially for youth across the United States.
'Fahrenheit 451' by Ray Bradbury
Society teaches us to trust firemen. They are the ones who run into burning buildings, save cats from trees, and all other manner of good deeds. Ray Bradbury's 1953 novel "Fahrenheit 451" turns that concept on its axis. "Firemen" are now the enforcers in a world where they must burn any book they find. TV screens are now as large as walls and are used to escape interactions with the world outside.
The book predicted the future about the lengths a government would go to ban books, limit freedoms, and dissuade critical thinking. The staggering number of measures introduced by lawmakers in 2021 and 2022 against critical race theory and the record-high banning of books in 2022 are just a few eerily prescient examples.
"Fahrenheit 451" has consistently been challenged or banned for its various themes, including discussions of drugs and vulgarity. It was contested in Texas because of a Bible-burning scene. A Bal-Hi edition also edited out swear words and changed "drunk man" to "sick man." Conversely, the book has also won multiple awards, including the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature and the Prometheus Hall of Fame Award.
'The Handmaid's Tale' by Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel is set in a not-too-distant dystopian future where the American government has been overthrown by a white supremacist, patriarchal, theocratic group known as Gilead. Women now forcibly produce children for the "Commanders" of Gilead.
Kept in constant circulation due to its enduring readership and fueled by Hulu's 2017 original series adaptation, the novel surged into conversations again following the reversal of Roe v. Wade in the United States in 2022, coupled with the ongoing battle over reproductive health care.
'Kindred' by Octavia Butler
Octavia Butler is one of the most prolific science fiction writers; she's also the first science fiction novelist and one of the first Black women to win the MacArthur "Genius Grant." Through her alternate worlds, she's delved into racism, climate change, systemic oppression, and the impacts our past has on our future.
Her 1979 time-traveling science fiction tale "Kindred" is widely lauded and was adapted into a Hulu original series in 2022. The story's setting flips back and forth between 1970s Los Angeles and 19th-century antebellum South as Dana, the story's Black heroine, is forced to travel back and forth to save herself and her ancestors. Only in this instance, her ancestor is the enslaver who raped her great-great-grandmother—making for a brutal and heartbreaking storyline.
"Kindred" also predicted the future, in its own way, by foreshadowing the rise of the white nationalist movement. In the book, Dana has a front-row seat for the birth and rise of the Ku Klux Klan and the colonial version of the police state (those who capture enslaved people). The book has been banned in both state and federal prisons.
'Brave New World' by Aldous Huxley
Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" is set in a future where people bear genetically modified babies and are divided into caste systems—a strict social hierarchy based on wealth or privilege—and freedoms and emotions are suppressed through technology.
The novel, much like others on this list, centers on totalitarianism and technology's ability to control and oppress when in the wrong hands. It has been banned in Ireland, Australia, and states like Maryland, California, and Delaware, among others. Its story, however, has made it a classic and is #21 on Le Monde's 100 books of the century.
'The Crucible' by Arthur Miller
Arthur Miller's play, set in the late 1600s, illuminates the hysteria of "witch hunts," reflecting the late Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy's more modern anti-communist hysteria. Amid a fevered religious revival, Abigail Williams accuses Elizabeth Proctor of witchcraft, causing panic. Neighbors testify against neighbors, which ends in people being hanged.
A historical fiction loosely based on the Salem witch trials published in 1953 may sound more like a dissection of the past than a predictor of the future, but when you consider its themes—religious extremism, the danger of false accusations—"The Crucible" is more of a prime example of history repeating itself. The book has been banned in various states across the U.S. for its depictions of witchcraft and violence.
'Things Fall Apart' by Chinua Achebe
Chinua Achebe's 1958 novel "Things Fall Apart" focuses on the impacts of colonialism on traditional societies—in this case, the Igbo. Divided into three parts, the novel walks readers through the life of the character Okonkwo—from his essential Igbo beginnings to the arrival of the British colonizers and Christian missionaries in Nigeria to the death of Okonkwo—who is unable to assimilate to the degradation of his culture and community.
The novel's anti-colonial narrative shows the dignity of African life before the arrival of white settlers. It also reveals the obstacles generations of African and Indigenous societies worldwide have faced.
'Lord of the Flies' by William Golding
William Golding's 1954 novel tells the harrowing story of a group of boys left to survive on their own after a plane crash strands them on an uninhabited island. While no supervision and no bedtimes may feel like a paradise, it quickly and terrifyingly descends into an ugly world of violence, chaos, and the possibility of humans turning on each other in an instant.
The book, banned for its depictions of violence in various U.S. schools and libraries as well as in Canada, gives readers a fairly accurate portrayal of the darkness of human nature and the steps one takes to survive. It also placed a magnifying lens on the ability of an individual (in the novel, Jack Merridew) to be corrupted by power—something that felt all too real as the Trump era held a grip over the country.
In addition, the book seemingly foretold the disastrous consequences when the 2017 Fyre Festival left hundreds of people stranded on an island with no resources, no power, no running water, and no ability to escape.
'To Kill a Mockingbird' by Harper Lee
Set in Maycomb, Alabama, Harper Lee's 1960 novel "To Kill a Mockingbird" examines how racism and prejudice dictate people's actions, reactions, and judgments when faced with accusations—no matter how false. A young girl, Scout, narrates the trial of Tom Robinson, a Black man falsely accused of raping a white woman who—despite a powerful defense placed by his lawyer, Atticus Finch—is killed while trying to escape punishment for a crime he didn't commit.
Racial prejudices against innocent Black men—especially concerning the perceived harm against white women described in "To Kill a Mockingbird"—continue to fill history books, however, such as the murder of Emmett Till and the Central Park Five case.
Even today, more than half of Black men were found to be falsely convicted despite making up only 14% of the U.S. population, according to a report from the National Registry of Exonerations. The book remains one of the most banned classical novels, facing challenges in nearly every decade.
'Beloved' by Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison's novels are known for exploring Black people's traumatic relationship with the United States, and it's no wonder "Beloved" is only the first of Morrison's novels to appear on this list.
The novel surrounds a formerly enslaved woman, Sethe, who decides to kill her 2-year-old daughter, preferring death over the horrors of her child being sold into slavery. Now, Beloved, the name given to the deceased child, continues haunting Sethe. Beloved's presence takes a debilitating toll on Sethe, causing her physical health to fail, her strength to wane.
Through "Beloved," Morrison depicts the intense and generational pangs of slavery and the far-reaching effects of white supremacy. The book has routinely been banned for its graphic depictions of slavery and violence, much in the same vein as the ongoing efforts to ban the teaching of critical race theory in classrooms across the U.S.
Surpassing controversy, "Beloved" won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize Award for Fiction and the 1987 National Book Award for Fiction.
'Animal Farm' by George Orwell
George Orwell makes another appearance on this list—this time for his 1945 satirical novella "Animal Farm." Zeroing in on themes of the corruption of power, totalitarianism, and rebellion, readers are treated to a story of a group of farm animals who host a coup d'etat against the farmer who raises them, hoping to establish an equal society. Their plans are thwarted when a pig named Napoleon comes along and establishes a tyrannical regime.
The book accurately depicts how governments use propaganda to control their citizens. The novel has been banned in several states in the U.S. and countrywide in places like North Korea and Cuba.
'The Color Purple' by Alice Walker
Published in 1982 and set in Georgia in the early 1900s, "The Color Purple" focuses on the life of Celie, a young Black woman who struggles with racism and abuse over the course of her life before finding some semblance of happiness.
The novel begins with Celie being forced to marry someone she doesn't love so as to bear his children, all while being physically and sexually abused by her father and husband, among others. As the novel progresses, however, Celie's relationships with other women around her empower her to speak up and explore who she actually is when out from under the thumb of her oppressors.
Banned for its depictions of violence, sexual abuse, and homosexuality in various U.S. cities and countries after its release, the book was hailed for its brave portrayal of Black women finding the power of their voice. As the #MeToo movement gained momentum, many couldn't help but see the mirroring of violence carried out against women, especially Black women, and the power to speak out emboldened by the women around them. The book was adapted into an Academy Award-nominated film and a musical.
'It Can't Happen Here' by Sinclair Lewis
Sinclair Lewis' "It Can't Happen Here" accurately predicted the United States presidential election's outcome nearly 100 years later. His 1935 satirical novel tells the story of Senator Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip, a presidential candidate who rises to power with the aid of nativist sentiments and plainspoken language.
The title, a clever reference to a common phrase uttered at the possibility of fascism in America, came back to haunt in recent times after the rise of Donald Trump. The book was banned as recently as 2016, when it was censored in Texas prisons along with 15,000 other books, such as Alice Walker's "The Color Purple" and Dante's "Inferno."
Not long after the election of Trump, "It Can't Happen Here" began seeing a rise in sales as people struggled to make sense of the headlines.
'The Grapes of Wrath' by John Steinbeck
This Great Depression tale is often mentioned as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. Published in 1939, "The Grapes of Wrath" follows the Joad family as they are forced to live itinerant lives while working low-paying farm jobs.
The book was initially banned or challenged in Kern County, California, for its depiction of efforts to help migrant workers. The county board of supervisors called the book a "libel and lie." It does predict the current struggles of migrant workers in modern society, the kind of social unrest that can occur when people are starved of resources, and how the loss of land can also act as a loss of cultural identity.
'The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian' by Sherman Alexie
Out of 100 books, Sherman Alexie's 2007 novel was the #1 most banned or challenged title between 2010 and 2019. Even so, the book has made a lasting impression on readers; its story is told through the character Arnold Spirit Jr. (aka Junior) as he leaves his reservation and attends Reardan High, an all-white high school in the Pacific Northwest. In the book, Alexie explores such themes as racism and Indigenous identity.
"The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" reminds us of the challenges of people whose culture was decimated by the U.S. government and is continually starved of resources. Currently, 1 in 3 Indigenous Americans live in poverty, often forcing them to make difficult decisions like leaving their community to find more opportunities.
'Persepolis' by Marjane Satrapi
The honor of being the only graphic novel to make this list, Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis" is an autobiographical retelling of her childhood and adolescence in Iran as the Islamic Revolution unfolded. Between 2010 and 2019, Satrapi's 2000 novel was the #40 most banned and challenged book by the American Library Association. It is consistently banned or challenged in multiple places, including Iran and Lebanon.
The book is still held in high esteem today because of its uncanny ability to predict the issues many Iranians still face under a repressive theocratic government, such as mental health. Bans and challenges aside, "Persepolis" was included on Time's list of 100 best young adult books of all time.
'The Things They Carried' by Tim O'Brien
Through a collection of short stories, Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried" tells of the trauma, pain, and terror witnessed through the eyes of Vietnam War soldiers. Published in 1990, O'Brien's stories give readers a glimpse into the human (and inhumane) experience of war right before America and a new set of soldiers were set to embark on another one.
Nearly five months after the book's release, America was at war in the Persian Gulf; almost 13 years after its publication, America was at it again with the War on Iraq, which began in March 2003. The book was banned because of its controversial contents, unsurprisingly.
'The Outsiders' by S.E. Hinton
S.E. Hinton's coming-of-age tale focuses on class warfare through the stories of two rural Tulsa, Oklahoma, gangs constantly at odds with each other: the greasers, a group of lower-class ne'er-do-wells from broken homes on the wrong side of the track, and an upper-class gang called the Socs.
Readers follow the main character, Ponyboy, a 14-year-old greaser who finds himself involved in a Soc's murder and is pulled into the gang violence that follows. While the novel leaned heavily on class in terms of wealth, the book is often lauded for its exploration of "outsiders" in any form and the desperation for community it can cause. The book also gave readers a glimpse into the reasons why youth get involved in gangs and the resulting rise in "gang culture."
The novel has faced its fair share of bans or challenges over the years but was also critically acclaimed and adapted into a 1983 film directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
'The Bluest Eye' by Toni Morrison
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye" is one of the most banned and challenged books, according to the American Library Association.
Told through the character Claudia MacTeer, we learn the story of Pecola Breedlove, a childhood friend who desperately longs for blue eyes. Pecola, often teased by her classmates for her dark skin, believes having blue eyes will make her beautiful. Through her trials at school, Pecola also suffers at home with a sexually abusive father and a mother who prefers the white girl she works for over her own daughter.
Often banned or challenged because of its sexually explicit content, the book recounts the journey from longing into self-loathing and isolation. The book delves into the effects of misogynoir and dissects how racism and colonialism inform colorism.
'Native Son' by Richard Wright
Richard Wright's 1940 book "Native Son" has been adapted for both the stage and screen over the years, largely because of its moving depiction of what can happen to man after enduring a barrage of racism and oppression and is purposely starved of resources.
Its protagonist, Bigger Thomas, is a 20-year-old Black man who barely survives off the pay he's given by the wealthy employer profiting from his labor. Pushed to the brink of making ends meet, Bigger attempts to rob the apartment of Mary Dalton, the daughter of the man he works for. When she catches him, he goes into a panic, accidentally killing her.
The book was both praised and persecuted for its portrayal of racism, violence, and the impacts of systemic oppression in the United States. It also predicted the rise of mass incarceration and criminalization of Black people in the United States. That frank picture Wright painted was also why it was often banned throughout the country.
'The Hate U Give' by Angie Thomas
"The Hate U Give" is a 2017 young adult novel following Starr Carter, a teenager who witnesses the murder of her best friend at the hands of a white cop. With piercing accuracy, the book not only portrayed the psychological trauma of a young Black woman but adeptly outlined the experiences that follow such traumatizing events—from the media attention to nationwide protests to the trial of the police officer.
How the story escalates echoes the progression of events during the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Then-17-year-old Darnella Frazier recorded former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin as he kneeled on Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes.
The book was banned for its depictions of "violence" and for seemingly promoting "an anti-police message and indoctrination of a social agenda." "The Hate U Give" was also adapted into a movie in 2018 starring Amandla Stenberg.
'Speak' by Laurie Halse Anderson
Laurie Halse Anderson's "Speak" quickly made its way onto the top 10 most challenged books list, appearing the year after it published.
The young adult novel focuses on the story of Melinda Sordino, a young girl coping with the traumatic aftermath of being raped at a summer party before her freshman year of high school. Fearing she won't be believed, or afraid she will be blamed for what happened, she becomes increasingly withdrawn and morose, isolating from her peers. It isn't until her art teacher, Mr. Freeman, encourages her to express herself through art and speak about her experiences that she opens up.
Though the book has been consistently challenged or banned because it is "thought to contain a political viewpoint and be biased towards male students," the book shows the power of speaking up, a conversation that would be championed by the #MeToo movement.
'Bless Me, Ultima' by Rudolfo Anaya
Set in the 1940s, at the seedling stages of the Bracero program that allowed millions of Mexican men to legally work in the United States, "Bless Me, Ultima" blends ancestral cultural practices and mysticism with the forging of a new identity, which set a lot of people on edge when it released in 1972.
The novel follows Antonio Marez, a 6-year-old growing up in Guadalupe, New Mexico, who attempts to negotiate his family's Catholic beliefs with his culture's pagan past after a curandera comes into his life. At its core, the book is about reconciling one's cultural identity post-colonialization. The novel offered a glimpse into the future of Chicano identity and made a general prediction of the decline of Christianity in America.
Several decades after its release, the book remains banned or challenged as of 2013, when it was brought up for suspicions of dealing with satanism and the occult and for having a religious viewpoint.
'Catch-22' by Joseph Heller
Banned once and challenged several times for its use of language, sex, and controversial themes, Joseph Heller's "Catch-22" is a satirical novel that isn't as battle-scarred as the other books on this list.
"Catch-22" takes place in World War II, with Captain John Yossarian, an Italian bombardier, desperately wanting out of the war by any means necessary. The title itself, "Catch-22," refers to the predicament Yossarian finds himself in as he loops through a bureaucratic cycle that tells him he can be discharged based on insanity. Still, if he requests to be grounded, he is deemed sane because of his natural desire to stay alive.
While the darkly funny novel looks at the absurdity of war and the government sponsoring it, there is no joking about how well Heller predicted the rise of bureaucracy and the inherent confusion purposely built into it.
Story editing by Carren Jao. Copy editing by Paris Close. Photo selection by Lacy Kerrick.